Lent 5, 22 March 2015

Lent 5, 22.3.15 Bridgewater

Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

There are very few things that everybody learns by heart any more. We each learn the songs that we like best; sing along with them when we hear them. And the advertising industry does its best to make us memorise little bits and pieces; implanting memories to sway our decision when that moment of choice arrives. But everyone remembers different things.

It’s quite different in more traditional societies. We went to a wedding in Bethlehem, and then afterwards to the reception. Two things struck me about that reception. First, there were lots of children. And second, when the DJ played songs, everybody danced, from toddlers to grannies; and they all sang along with the songs. I was stunned. How could they all have these songs in common. Song united everyone; it was lovely and joyful.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

During the service today, we’ll be reciting words together that people have said or sung for centuries all over the world, and in pretty nearly every language; much we know by heart. We should try not to look at the screen. And at communion, we’ll remember Jesus’s words when he first gave his disciples the bread and the wine, and we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer together. The words we know by heart are things that unite all Christians with each other; it’s strong and lovely and joyful.

These words bind us together, and we hand them on to our children; we help them to write these words on their hearts.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

Why do we hand out on these timeworn words and customs to our children? What difference do we hope it’ll make to them? They can’t understand those words now, and I’d have to say that a lot of us adults—me included—struggle with their meaning even into old age. What’s the point? Are we just indoctrinating them, or are we giving them something more? I believe we are giving them something very precious. And I’ve come across something that says it beautifully.

Jacob Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. A few years ago, he gave a talk about the great unanswerable questions of life; the questions that come from a deep place within us: Who am I? Does God exist? Is there a soul, and is it immortal? What can we know? What ought we do? What is good and evil?

He talked of the great body of ideas and teachings built up over thousands of years to help people as they try to answer these questions.

The great stories and images of the world don’t usually reveal their meaning to us right away. These great stories, these fairy tales, these Biblical images, these myths, these great works of art—sometimes they’re not there to convince the brain, … but they…go down in the direction of the heart. And later on, as the years pass, and suddenly life does something to you, some shock, some disappointment, some triumph, some extraordinary thing, and suddenly, ‘Ah! That’s what the story meant, that’s what the story was telling me!’ So try to let these stories come into you and slowly radiate their meaning.” He tells the story of a conversation between a pupil and a wise old Rebbe.

“… the pupil asks the wise Rebbe about a passage in the Bible, in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is part of the Torah, the heart of the Old Testament. There is a sentence there that says to ‘Lay these words upon your heart.’ The words, which sum up the fundamental belief of the Hebraic tradition, are these: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; And you shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ (Deut 6: 4-6)

And the pupil asks the Rebbe, ‘Why does it tell us to lay these words upon our heart? Why doesn’t it tell us to put them in our heart?’ And the Rebbe answers, ‘It’s because as we are, our hearts are closed, and the words can’t get in. So we just put them on top of the heart. And there they stay. There they stay until some day, when the heart breaks, they fall in.’”

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

The great wisdom: study it in all its forms,’ says Needleman, ‘and some day when your heart breaks, either in great sorrow or in uncontainable joy, it will fall in, and you’ll understand another level of [your humanity].”

I think at moments like that, we’ll feel God’s timeless, boundless love. We’ll feel it just when we need it; when we can finally comprehend it; when it can do the work it was send to do in us.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. Amen